What the Newcastle United takeover means for the soul of the Premier League

The Newcastle takeover is set to be completed soon
The Newcastle takeover is set to be completed soon / James Gill - Danehouse/GettyImages

Back in April 2020 when it first looked like the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United would go through, Amnesty International wrote an open letter to the Premier League.

In it they warned that England's top flight risked becoming: "a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the global footballing community.”

18 months on and the deal is set to be finalised, nonetheless.

Any roadblocks in the takeover proceedings, whether caused by human rights concerns or TV piracy issues, are now immaterial as reports claim that the Premier League has been assured that the PIF (Public Investment Fund) - which will have an 80% controlling stake in the club - is a separate entity to the Saudi state.

Seemingly, the Premier League have accepted the convenience of that option to stop themselves having to take a moral position.

In the eyes of the Premier League then, myriad human rights abuses, allegations of war crimes in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are not relevant in any decision making because it will be the PIF in charge of the day to day at Newcastle, not Saudi Arabia the state.

Ok, then. But how does one separate the PIF from the Saudi state exactly?

With its assets in the hundreds of billions, the PIF is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. Its purpose is to make investments on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government and its chair is Mohammad bin Salman - the crown prince of Saudi Arabia (and the man the US senate has called 'complicit' in the murder of Khashoggi).

For MBS and Saudi Arabia, the takeover of Newcastle is a chance for some much-needed image management in the West after years of bad press.

The interests of the Saudis are clear, while Newcastle fans' desire for fresh investment in their club is understandable if wildly misplaced. However, the Premier League's decision to side-step questions of morality is depressing - even if it is not surprising.

The Premier League has no morality, or human rights clauses in its Owners and Directors Test (also known as the Fit and Proper Persons Test). If it had, the likes of the Abu Dhabi United Group and Thaksin Siniwatra may never have been allowed to buy Manchester City.

FIFA do now have a ​Human Rights Policy in the wake of the Qatar World Cup backlash, but there is nothing prescriptive about club ownership which would influence individual associations and leagues.

Essentially then, the Premier League is an amoral organisation.

In recent days, as the Newcastle takeover inched toward completion, Amnesty International urged changes to how prospective takeovers are handled.

"Instead of allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets, we've urged the Premier League to change their owners' and directors' test to address human rights issues," Amnesty UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement, via The Guardian.

Newcastle United v Southampton - Premier League
St James' Park is about to get new ownership / George Wood/GettyImages

Speaking to 90min, Nicholas McGeehan, a human rights worker for FairSquare, suggests blocking all states regardless of their human rights from taking ownership of clubs.

He said: "Coming at it from a human rights perspective, no states should be able to run football clubs.

"That means that no matter how good or bad your human rights record is you can't be involved and you are not going to allow the fortunes of a social and community institution to be controlled by a country. That would solve a lot of the problems we have right now, as a starting point."

But without clear mechanisms to stop state-backed groups from buying up clubs through investment funds, and little desire from the Premier League to impose standards around morality, what does this mean for the future of the Premier League and football?

Increasingly in the modern game, the only people that can afford to run football clubs are the ones that probably shouldn't.

But is there now a reality in which a few years down the line all Premier League clubs are the playthings of state actors? Is there a risk that the league becomes simply a soulless arena for high-end PR, or worse a theatre for geopolitics and the playing out of global grudges?

McGeehan is pessimistic: "It's remarkable how quickly their [Middle Eastern states] interest in football has led to them being key figures in the game, with vast amounts of power and control over the shape and direction of club football in Europe.

"The prospect of having Mohammed bin Salman and Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan [head of the Abu Dhabi United Group] running two of the most successful clubs in the Premier League should fill everybody with absolute horror.

"These are two of the most dangerous, corrupt, venal world leaders. There's no getting away from that. These are kleptocrats and serial human rights abusers.

"We're already in a nightmare scenario."